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For years, a continuing lament of teachers is students’ ‘learned helplessness.’ I witnessed this time and again: students who eschew pencils on the ground or break them then repeatedly asking for another, treating provided materials with disdain, echoing phrases of “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand,” and waging a war of attrition: who’s going to break first– me or them–when it comes to clarifying instructions or letting them become overly frustrated? (I usually just answer questions with questions, but somehow that doesn’t always inspire.) How could they NOT be getting this?! The learning targets and success criteria are written with great thought and precision every single day: why won’t they look at the board, and tuck into this delicious buffet of knowledge and enlightenment I’ve offered? The old phrase ‘students should work harder than the teacher’ often didn’t happen. Some folks think grit may be the answer, but to date no one knows how to ‘teach grit,’ or even if it should be taught.

If asked what the learning target/success criteria is for any given lesson, students are trained to parrot back what’s on the board, robotically and usually, joyless. If an evaluator is in the room, this signal from teachers to students is an expectation, and often students are pulled away and quietly asked, “What is the learning target today?” as a check-point for the teacher. The locus of control and agency shifts from student engagement to teacher accountability. And the learned helplessness increases.

I now know why.

And I want my colleagues to pay attention and collaborate with me, and see if we can do better.

How we learn to be helpless—and unlearn it

Learned helplessness keeps people in bad jobs, poor health, terrible relationships, and awful circumstances despite how easy it may be to escape. Learn how to defeat this psychological trap, thanks to the work of Martin Seligman.

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Internal drive.

run train

What makes us go?

Pernille Ripp from Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension provides some challenging and mindful questions about rewards. I am a skeptic of Alfie Kohn, but after what I’ve seen the past two years with PBIS am experiencing my own ‘growth mindset,’ too.

PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports), according to the mission statement on their website: 

PBIS is a framework or approach for assisting school personnel in adopting and organizing evidence-based behavioral interventions into an integrated continuum that enhances academic and social behavior outcomes for all students. 
PBIS IS NOT a packaged curriculum, scripted intervention, or manualized strategy. 
PBIS IS a prevention-oriented way for school personnel to (a) organize evidence-based practices, (b) improve their implementation of those practices, and (c) maximize academic and social behavior outcomes for students.
PBIS supports the success of ALLstudents.

Here are the four questions asked, and my thoughts:

1.  Will the rewards only go to certain kids?

Currently our system throughout the school means rewards go to certain kids by design.

I am considering doing more class/period competitions, not in terms of grade or score displays (a thousand times NO), but in terms of what students from other classes say/contribute. As it stands, I use class discussions to capture contributions from all classes on the Smartnotebook, but a means to share those contributions in a visual way might be amazing. The expectation is everyone contributes. More exit tickets with thinking. I used e-learning to host forums every week; perhaps I’ll create a cross-class workshop next year. The message in my room stands on valuing contributions: not loudest voices, one reason forums and space to think/write is highly valued in my room.

2.  Have you seen long-term changes as a result of giving extrinsic rewards?

The short answer: no.

The longer answer: yes, but not the kinds of changes I’ve wanted to see.

I miss the longer forms, what we used to call “Way to Go” slips, because when I filled one of those out it carried more weight and thought than our current ‘carnival’ ‘Chuck E. Cheese’s’ token economy currently in place. The staff has worked so hard to provide a prize table in the cafeteria, and spent their own money for items. Having spent thousands of dollars myself on books, pencils, snacks, clothing, toiletries, and yes, prizes, this isn’t sustainable. Again, I am not advocating for the abolishment of a prize table, but I wish it was dissociated with the learning environment. When I go to Chuck E. Cheese’s I’m not there for the literature or algorithms. (Well, I don’t need to go at all anymore: that phase is over for me!) Perhaps the students clubs and groups could work at earning those prizes, or some other extra-curricular culture? I’m not sure what the answer is.

And this is squarely my fault: I am not good at this. I never have been. When it comes to keeping track of tickets and tokens, it is not in my nature or style. I have been expected to change my own teaching style, and feel hypocritical and guilty when my name or number isn’t counted among the thousands of tickets when admin checks how many teachers gave away tickets.

Yes, they collect the data on teachers for our compliance. Supposedly this isn’t the case anymore, but the spirit of the tickets is tainted for me.

I have stacks of books, stories, student work to hang up, and adding tickets to the mix was my personal tipping point. I don’t want to burn out. One factor is when others’ agendas and projects  suck the oxygen out of me.

I’ve asked if the tickets can be used to choose kids to participate in assemblies, go first in line at lunch (I believe this has happened, but not sure), and they’ve given the kids with slips an extra treat at lunch. I would be interested to know how many tickets are given because the student worked really hard on a project versus picked up trash in the classroom. I actually wouldn’t object if tickets were given out for cleaning up and helping out, but the tickets should be clearly associated with classroom culture and safety, and NOT learning. Some other academic showcase should be reserved for that: hallway displays, blogs. forums. One of the highlights of my year was when a student from another team complimented me on hanging up student work in the hallways–she wanted to be part of it, too.

Perhaps my own failure to hand out tickets is because I don’t do this for my own sons: there is a standard ‘chore list’ with the understanding that for the good of the family they’ll help. And they have. Not once have I received back-talk or non-compliance for asking a son to take out the trash, and most times I don’t even have to remind them. I have been honest, kind of that ‘if momma ain’t happy, no one is’ thing – let’s all do what we can so we can get to the ‘fun’ stuff: watching a movie, reading, stargazing, etc.

3.  Will the rewards increase or devalue the learning?

The rewards in place clearly devalue learning. The rise of ‘grade grubbing,’ questions such as, “How many points is this worth?” and “What will I get?” is as frequent as students asking for pencils or using proxy servers to download games and music. I am considering creating a poster/chart of the banned phrases in my room, such as “How long does it have to be?” and “How many points is it worth?” It’s gotten out of hand. No longer does any learning have value to most students because of the increase in extrinsic motivation. They (students) are connecting compliance with engagement, and are going to be in sad shape when they can’t think of anything to engage their minds with on their own, or haven’t meditated on metacognitive thinking.

“If little else, the brain is an educational toy.”

― Tom RobbinsEven Cowgirls Get the Blues

Now, perhaps the learning is happening invisibly. But in terms of the current system of rewards, it’s been a huge distraction. Any small favor, any helpful contribution is often followed by, “Can I have a Pride Slip?”

I am not against extrinsic motivation. The other morning someone said a kind word to me, and like drought-ridden Texas, when I was showered with a modicum of kindness I started crying. (Yes, the climate at my school as been really negative.) We all need to have a kind word or acknowledgment.

4.  Will students actually care?

The prize is a thing, not value. Giving a blank journal to a girl who loves to write, or a book to a boy who loves to read snarky, sarcastic writers has value. I offer my time and counsel to those even after they leave my classroom. The personal gestures hold weight, the chotskies or novelty items are ephemeral. Students greedily grab up tokens in the moment, and then when they don’t ‘have enough’ are discouraged. Students have stolen tickets, bartered, traded, etc. in order to get the big prizes at the prize table (soccer balls, etc.). Like hustling for cigarettes and contraband in prison, much of the ‘ticket culture’ has lead to some unsavory behaviors.

harry bored

And I wonder if the token economy decreases curiosity, which increases boredom, which then may increase process addictive behaviors (those twitchy, compulsive behaviors: checking our phones, etc.


Last year, when our school implemented PBIS, the students were hoarding the ‘pride slips.’ The teachers’ names were printed on them, and then because of an outcry, the tickets then had anonymous numbers printed on them correlating to teachers, so administration could collect data on how many teachers were in compliance with the program. No one addressed the equity issue, or the hoarding at that time. No one provided any debate or counter-discussion to the token economy implemented by the PBIS committee. (To be fair, the committee members are some of the hardest working, responsive colleagues and professionals I know: they offered the times and dates of their meetings. And perhaps I am misremembering the staff meetings: little motion for debate or questioning was truly encouraged at staff meetings in the past. I am hoping that changes.) I did pop my head into one meeting, and offered my insight as to why hoarding occurred. Most of our students are raised by twitchy games: coins, blinking jewels, cartoon noises when achieved a temporal goal. Micro-transactions (small purchases to get to the next level of a game) induce process addictive behaviors. Oh wow: did I just suggest that a prize ticket at school may lead to a gambling addiction? That’s hyperbolic, and I apologize. I’ll try to focus more (after this level!)


Here’s where I am: 

Students want to be seen. The ones who aren’t rewarded merely for turning in an assignment, or rewarded because “Johnny didn’t dance on the tables today” are the ones who respectfully, and courageously, just want my time and insight, as I theirs. When I ask them if I may share their story or poem with the staff, when we invite others to hear their performances, when we help them carry their legacy and give them the academic portfolio to honor their work, those students not only thrive, learn, and grow, but carry that enduring love of learning with them.

So, what were my results by not handing out little blue tickets? Actually, pretty great. Yesterday I went to the high school with my 8th grade students for ‘move up day.’ One of my sweet students was in my group, and she remarked at how many high school students came up and hugged me, worked to catch my attention, and in general were happy to see me, as I them. That motivates me as I pack up a tough year. And I don’t need a ticket to prove it.

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Ants and Grasshoppers

While the ant works hard all summer preparing, because you know, winter is coming and all that, the grasshopper plays music and has fun…until, you know, winter came.

Oh that mountain of TBR: To Be Read books, the books we put off all year and then try to binge over the short summer weeks. Perhaps if I capture my list on this blog, it’ll somehow self-curate my reading and curriculum planning time.

Maybe? Sure. Sure it will.

Ant Books

These are my professional books on my list:

Jim Burke: The English Teacher’s Companion – I have a marked up copy, and realized it’s time to implement some of those highlighted gems.

Jennifer Fletcher: Teaching Arguments

I’ve been thumbing through this, and its heavy emphasis on traditional rhetoric seem counter-intuitively refreshing.

Jim Burke and Barry Gilmore: Academic Moves for College and Career Readiness, Grades 6-12: 15 Must-Have Skills Every Student Needs to Achieve

This tome is the latest shared reading from my district. Since I trust Jim Burke I’m looking forward to it. I tried to get my team to read Burke’s The Common Core Companion, (which I have) but alas, it didn’t make it to our PLC agendas. Onward!

Grasshopper Books

The only ‘must reads’ for the summer are Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov because my older son told me to, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr because my book club told me to.

Young Adult books to read and refresh my classroom library: (links to lists)

And Book Riot is pretty fun, too.

What’s on your reading list this summer, your ant book, and your grasshopper book?

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The core.

core of apple


Whereby I confess my most egregious professional sins and meditate, lighting candles to Grant, Wiggins, and Burke, in order to get my head back on right. And a favor: please do not make assumptions about where I’m going with this, and be honest with yourself–it is a rare human who’s never experienced a pang of professional jealousy, or ‘me-too-itis.’ 

This may be my new favorite teacher-writer:

And yes, she takes a great headshot. 

Dang, I am jealous. Straight up. Confessing. Green monster. Yuck.

But…this is when I get things moving forward again.

Jennifer Gonzalez writes the blog, Cult of Pedagogy and I’m having one of those ‘where has this been all my life?’ moments. Writes posts that I wish I had written, says the difficult things I wish I was brave enough to discuss. But now I’m going to lay it out on the table – one of her posts resonated so deeply for me this year, it is a mental grout of my brain tiles. (Oof- that is a horrible metaphor. Sorry. Told you I was off my game.) In her article, Gut-Level Teacher Reflection, she asks five intense questions that dig deeply into our constructs of what and who we are. 

1. Look around your classroom (or picture it in your mind). What parts of the room make you feel tense, anxious, or exhausted? What parts make you feel calm, happy, or proud?

2. Open up your plan book (or spreadsheet, or wherever you keep your lesson plans from the year) and just start browsing, paying attention to how you’re feeling as your eyes meet certain events. What days and weeks give you a lift when you see them, a feeling of pride or satisfaction? Which ones make you feel disappointed, irritated or embarrassed?

3. Take a look at your student roster. What do you feel when you see each name? Which names make you feel relaxed, satisfied and proud, which ones make your chest tighten with regret, and which ones make your stomach tense?

4. Mentally travel from classroom to classroom, picturing each teacher in the building. What are your feelings as you approach each one? Which coworkers give you a generally positive feeling, which ones are neutral, and which ones make you feel nervous, angry, or annoyed?

5. Look at the following professional practice “buzzwords.” As you read each one, do you have positive, negative, or mixed feelings? What other words have you heard a lot this year that give you a strong feeling one way or the other?

  • technology
  • differentiation
  • data
  • research-based strategies
  • Common Core
  • higher-level thinking
  • flip

Okay, let’s see: No. 1 – yes, my room needs some deep purging. I can do that. I may even go in this afternoon. Many best laid plans of conferencing areas, writing nooks, and comfortable reading and discussion areas fell by the wayside.

No. 2: With the directives I was given this year I learned some tough lessons. Be careful of other’s visions if the vision is embedded in negativity. Never again will I miss the subtext of someone who is inherently a doomsayer and offers little or no insight or collaborative, positive steps forward. I know and have proven I know time and again what engages students, how to embed purpose, relevance, and authentic self-esteem in constructing knowledge.

Moving on.

No. 3: What causes me anxiety is when I know, with clarity and dismay, that many of my students don’t receive the services they require, even though I pound loudly at the admin door. There is a lot of rhetoric, but not much action, and occasionally I feel I end up mocked for my efforts to try to get children real and true help. Recognizing this is one of my core values serves my efforts to continue to make as many connections with parents as possible. That’s the only way when leadership isn’t available.

No. 4: Ah, coworkers. Yes, there is one or two that cause me anxiety, but overall, my colleagues are amazing, supportive, intelligent and wise, and I know they feel the same about me. I only feel anxiety when I think I’m being compared unfairly to a new rock star on the block, and not being seen for who I am. This, to me, is one of the sins of administration –playing favorites. It was said to me, “Why don’t you teach like so and so? ” this year. That is the mark of a dysfunctional leader.

No. 5: Buzzwords? Not a problem.

There is another fuzzy-monster I need to squash. I have been honored to know John Spencer for approximately 6 or 7 years in a virtual collegial dialogue. He recently announced he’s leaving the classroom to become a professor, a trajectory I thought I might be able to do years ago.

Here’s the thing: he is amazing, creative, and has gotten out there and made it happen. He created lectures, presentations, blogs, websites, books: created and produced his dreams with the love of his family and friends. That is how it’s supposed to work. Now I am doing some hard thinking about my own trajectory, and what I want, need, and where I can provide the greatest service for students with my strengths. 

What derails us, and how do we get back on track? Well, perhaps, for me, when I am not brave or honest, or forgive myself, with grace, when life events take precedence over the perfectly-planned lesson or the standing ovation observation. I give a lot of myself to my husband, sons, and students. I am greatly looking forward to this summer when I can nourish my own creativity and purge the unnecessary or cumbersome. Funny, ‘cumbersome’ does not come in the form of too much paper or outdated files, but in emotions: it’s time to clean up any residual mental mold, and be proud and happy I know such wonderful colleagues, and they know me. 

ripe red apple with green leaf isolated on white

To summer!

PS Next post: my reading list…

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Drawn to the light…

The Moth
The Moth

Last night I dragged my family to see The Moth–the theme of the night was “Fish Out of Water.” The host for the evening was Ophira Eisenberg, and she was sparkling funny.So hearing stories: that’s what we want. All of us,  no matter our age, want this connection.

That is what is so tough when I am being observed and don’t point to a learning target in the middle of a conceptual anecdote that connects to a bigger idea. Students love stories. Observers often misconstrue the art of the story as “teacher talking too much.”

Ever notice how often students want us to continue with the story? They think that they are flattering us, and that they don’t have to do any real “work” if we’re talking, but in actuality that is often when the real learning is planted.

Cybele Abbett, Pam Flowers, Cole Kazdin, Adam Mansbach, and Vin Shambry were the storytellers. A violinist Luke Fitzpatrick played in between presenters. The stories we heard will stay with us. Pam Flowers spoke – a little 5′ woman who is as big as a mountain of spirit.  The audience gasped when she said she had to pull out her rifle to (possibly) shoot a polar bear. She clearly stated it was the polar bear or her dogs. The crowd in Seattle had a hard time understanding such a choice. To many of them, choosing between the organic brownies or the free-range fudge is the toughest thing they do. Okay that was snarky. Apologies. I fell in love with this woman. My husband said he would have been just as satisfied if he didn’t have to drive downtown and listened to the podcast. I disagree. Seeing her tiny frame and tell her story in her pragmatic, sweet voice, I felt the expanse of the tundra, felt the crunch of the shattering ice, and felt her love of her dogs.

There were five storytellers that night. They told stories of love, motorcycles, camp, homelessness, babies, and transgender children.

And the sound a polar bear makes when it’s about to attack.

Stories stay in our minds because they come through our soul: I learned more about dog sledding in ten minutes than I ever could have by simply reading the ‘instructions.’

The current recommendation of texts is 30% fiction and 70% non-fiction. What someone didn’t mention is that’s for 12th grade:

Distribution of Literary and Informational Passages by Grade in the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework

Grade Literary Information
4 50% 50%
8 45% 55%
12 30% 70%

(2008). Reading framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Well that night at the even we had a full serving of personal, “informational” narrative. Does memoir-esque storytelling have a genre? Does personal truth and factual supports count as informative text? Was it 100% informational since everyone’s story was true to them? I suppose so. Personally, I love personal narratives/informational text in all forms. But I also love a great ‘once upon a time’ moment too.

Well, regardless of the recommended daily dose of what a 12th grade student should or should not be reading, I am going to keep striving for purpose and integrity, and not worry whether or not it’s ‘good’ for me. Stories are inherently good.

 Update: This article relates to the topic of narrative and information synthesizing to make greater meaning: ‘Could Storytelling Be the Secret Sauce to STEM Education?’

“I’m a narrative learner,” said Fruchter. “I nail down concepts by aligning them to stories or making up stories about them,” he said.